Traverse City News and Events

GT Regional Land Conservancy Acquires $5.1M Property in East Bay Township

By Beth Milligan | March 28, 2024

Property recently targeted for a large-scale housing complex in East Bay Township has been purchased for $5.1 million by the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy (GTRLC), protecting 210 acres between Four and Five Mile roads from development. GTRLC now has three years to repay a loan it secured for the time-sensitive purchase and will be evaluating recreation and conservation opportunities on the ecologically important site, referred to as The Ridge.

The property – a steep, wooded ridge with expansive views stretching as far as Sugar Loaf in Leelanau County (pictured) – was recently targeted for a significant development of up to 1,760 housing units. Innovo, the development group behind Breakwater Apartments in downtown Traverse City, appeared before East Bay Township planning commissioners in January with a proposal to rezone the sprawling property from low density residential (LDR) to moderate density residential (MDR).

The township’s existing LDR rules would allow 660 single-family homes on the site. Under changes to LDR rules proposed in the township’s zoning rewrite – underway now – 1,100 units could be constructed. If the property was rezoned to MDR, the zoning rewrite could eventually allow up to 1,760 multi-family units to be built. However, planning commissioners rejected the MDR rezoning proposal, unwilling to amend their recently approved master plan for the project – a necessary step in the rezoning process.

Enter GTRLC. The nonprofit, which has kept tabs on the property for several years, was able to secure a short-term loan from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation to buy the site for $5.1 million. GTRLC had to move quickly, as there “was some urgency” on the sellers’ part to find a buyer, according to GTRLC Director of Communications and Engagement Jennifer Jay. GTRLC is also working to finalize the purchase of an additional adjacent 10 acres, bringing the total acquisition to 220 acres. GTRLC has three years to fundraise and repay the loan, with Charles Stewart Mott Foundation President and CEO Ridgway White saying the project represented a “unique opportunity.”

“We’re proud to support the conservancy in its effort to preserve such a prominent feature of the landscape in Traverse City, especially because limiting development on the site will provide water quality benefits for Grand Traverse Bay by reducing stormwater runoff,” White says.

Jay also points to the ecological value of the property, particularly in terms of water quality and protection. The site houses “important wetlands – including a perched rich conifer swamp – and spans two sub-watersheds of the Grand Traverse Bay watershed,” Jay says. Those include the Mitchell Creek and East Bay Shoreline watersheds. Bakers Creek also runs through a portion of the property before reaching the bay. “Wetlands at this location are important for filtering and cleaning water before it enters East Grand Traverse Bay, which is the source of Traverse City's drinking water,” Jay says.

The property is strategically positioned to serve as a wildlife corridor connecting to other surrounding protected properties. Those include the Reffitt and Mitchell Creek Meadows Nature Preserves, the Mnaandendan Shkaakimiikwe Nature Sanctuary, and Holiday Woodlands. Its location could also help “provide a significant recreational corridor from Traverse City to the Vasa Trail,” Jay says. In addition to a comprehensive conservation evaluation of the entire property – which will take place in the coming months – GTRLC will look at potential trail locations on the site.

“In terms of recreation, the property offers breathtaking views of Grand Traverse Bay from several points along the ridge, and the potential for a high-quality trail system near Traverse City,” says GTRLC Executive Director Glen Chown. Jay notes that properties with steep ridge lines are under heavy development pressure in the region. With “so much of the lake frontage gone,” Jay says, they offer the next best thing in terms of scenic views for homeowners, making them increasing targets for construction.

Though GTRLC is excited about acquiring the site for environmental and recreation purposes, the organization is also keenly aware of the region’s housing shortage. An ad hoc committee of GTRLC board members and staff has been formed to “evaluate whether any portion of the property would be more appropriately suited for housing,” Jay says. That could include areas closer to the main surrounding roads, while still protecting the more ecologically sensitive interior. “The conservancy is carefully considering how best to balance two important community needs: conservation of our most important natural resources and workforce housing development,” Jay says.

Though Innovo’s ambitious housing project ultimately didn’t materialize on the site, principal and co-founder Brian Mullally says the company is OK with the outcome. “Once we had some discussions with the sellers and the conservancy, we realized that the best use of that property would be for (GTRLC) to take the lead,” he says. “We think it’s a really good fit. We’re also trying to be good stewards in the community, so we’re pleased they were able and willing to step up and get the property.”

Plus, if GTRLC ultimately determines some portion of the property is suitable for workforce housing, Innovo could still be a project partner in the future. “We’ve discussed it with them...there’s still a workforce housing need in this community, and if there are areas near the road that could be more easily developed and avoid any environmental sensitivities, we’d be interested in looking at that,” Mullally says.

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